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Wealth of Urban History Just a Click Away

Between 1939 and 1941, New York City photographed every house and building in the five boroughs. Along with that, the city has long held on to its citizens’ paper trails—birth and death records, marriage licenses, deeds and other documents. It’s the paper that people often forget about—and that can prove quite interesting to history buffs. And it’s available to New Yorkers—some of it electronically—from the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. Department Commissioner Brian D. Andersson spoke about the wealth of urban history available at the last meeting of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, held at St. Phillip’s Church located on 11th Avenue and 80th Street. Andersson’s department gathers records once the city is finished with them and houses a treasure chest of old newspapers, clippings, biographies, government reports, budgets, film archives, architectural plans and more. Many old pictures are available for sale on the department’s web site and it is in the process of digitizing its troves. There is also a preservation department that works to restore historical documents—for example, they have the deed from when the Dutch bought Canarsie. The municipal records are housed in the City Hall Library, 31 Chambers Street, which is open to the public. It was established in 1913 and now contains approximately 250,000 items. The building survey photographs were part of the city’s attempt to establish tax rates at the time—but now represent a window into another world. Similar photographs from the 1980s were recently pulled out from a dusty basement, Andersson noted, and are now being processed. The collections are particularly fascinating to people who want to do research into their genealogy, Andersson noted. He is a genealogist himself. When Andersson marched alongside actor Paul Sorvino in the Columbus Day Parade, he told the Dyker Heights audience, he wanted to wow him. So he fished out the passenger list from the boat on which Sorvino’s father arrived in this country as a small child. And Sorvino cried. “Everybody’s left footprints in the sand,” Andersson said. “And the footprints in the sand are city records.” And famous people leave footprints, too. One marriage license in the city’s possession has two presidential signatures on it—Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Along with a certain Eleanor, of course. It’s from St. Patrick’s Day, 1905, when FDR and Eleanor were married in New York City. But if you start researching history, Andersson warned, you may not be able to stop once you find so many neat things. “It’s the thrill of the hunt,” he said. “I’ve been at it for 30 years and it’s still thrilling.” To find out more or purchase a historical photograph, visit or call 311.

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